January 23, 2019

Letting Go

We leave well before dawn and as we speed through darkness I keep asking myself how it is that I’m now the parent of a college student — I can still remember vividly the details of my own freshman year almost 30 years ago.

Arriving at the college, we locate the information booth, obtain assignments, keys and instructions and begin the ritual of moving in. Cardiac-challenged fathers carry heavy boxes of computer equipment up three flights of crowded stairs ("You know, I finished a masters thesis on a manual typewriter, do you really need all this?"), while nervous mothers carefully lay socks and underwear into dresser drawers ("Remember to keep colors and whites separate when you wash these!"). Kids roll their eyes and protest, but we persist. All the while, the roommate — whose appearance suggests either Charles or Marilyn Manson — lolls unkempt on his messy bed, stroking a battered guitar and looking on scornfully.

When everything that can be done for the kid has been done — the bed made, stereo hooked up, textbooks laid out on shelves — he’s anxious to run off to his orientation meeting and to his life as a collegian, but we hold on tightly for one more moment. Moms’ eyes fill with tears. Dads compulsively reach into a wallet for a few dollars to give the kid. Some words are called for, but what do you say? What final bit of wisdom before sending the kid into the world as an independent adult? What hopes, threats, advice, sermons, culled from 18 years of living in my house should I bequeath to him as we stand together in the dormitory doorway?

This is the pathos of Deuteronomy. Moses raised this generation of young, free Israelites. He nurtured them, taught them, guided them through the wilderness. Now he must let go and he is afraid of losing them, as he lost their parents — losing them to their fears and instincts, losing them to the pernicious influences that will surround them, losing them to the accidents of history.

Moses’ parental anxiety is felt in every line of the book. This is a book of urgency. He speaks to them, this one last time, pleading at every moral level. He appeals to their powers of moral reasoning, and to their shared ideals and values. He reminds them of their past, the ordeals and dreams of ancestors, the covenant freely upheld by forefathers. He invokes the power of public reputation and exalts them as "God’s children" (Deuteronomy 14:1). And then, exhausting all other means of persuasion, he evokes primitive rewards and punishments: "See! This day I set before you blessing and curse: blessing if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I enjoy upon you this day; and curse if you do not obey" (Deuteronomy 11:26-8).

I know this Moses. Every parent who has ever dropped a kid off at school knows this Moses. Bar and bat mitzvah may be the traditional moment our children are recognized as adults, but the moment it becomes real is this one, when our children move out of our families, our homes, our communities and into the universe via the university. There, they will be confronted with every manner of lifestyle, political opinion, personal values and spirituality.

The core experience of the university is the ultimate freedom of choice. The university course catalog is the size of large city phone book. All of human knowledge and opinion is now accessible to them. Campus bulletin boards are heavy with fliers, notices and posters cajoling their participation, affiliation and support. Campus walkways are crowded with booths inviting their membership in every sort of society and cause. Chabad, Greenpeace, the Vegan Union and the Young Republicans are curiously juxtaposed on one corner. Who they were when we bring them to the campus has absolutely no relationship to who they will become. By year’s end, their ideas and ideals, their friendships, their diet and appearance will be radically different.

I know Moses’ anxiety. "You are about to cross the Jordan to enter and possess the land — take care to observe all the laws and rules I have set before you this day" (Deuteronomy 11:31-2).

What shall we say to them at this moment? There are new, creative rituals penned for this occasion. But what the moment demands is deeply personal — sharing my own wisdom, my own feelings, my Deuteronomy. Then let the child go. I remember that I am commanded not to let my fears inhibit his freedom to explore and experience the universe and to trust in the character and soul I’ve had these 18 years to nurture.

Have a good year at school and remember we love you.

Ed Feinstein is rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.